Preacher, Don't Move the Fence in Your Sermon

by Mike Leake September 1, 2015

G.K. Chesterton once said:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

In other words, it isn’t wise to go about moving fences unless you realize why that fence was there in the first place.

I was reminded of this quote the other day while doing sermon preparation. The last sermon I preached stopped at Mark 3:6 and, as is my custom, I knew I’d pick up in Mark 3:7. But I was not sure how far I should go. What was the appropriate textual unit? I wondered if I should stop somewhere around verse 22 before I picked up that section on blasphemy of the Spirit. But then verses 31-35 seemed to just hang there. These were obviously connected with 3:20-21, so maybe I should preach from Mark 3:7-35.

Then I had a brilliant idea. I’d skip verses 22-30 and pick that section up next week and do a whole new sermon centered upon blasphemy of the Spirit. It was a great idea, until I remembered the Chesterton quote. I had to admit I really hadn’t wrestled with why Mark put verses 22-30 where he did. And so, if I was going to “move the fence” and skip those verses I figured I had better do a little more digging.

As I dug a bit more I discovered that Mark 3:22-30 is the meat to a Markan sandwich. The crowd in 3:7-12 is trying to control him. Those close to him in verse 20-21 are trying to seize him because they believe he has lost his mind. The scribes in verses 22-23 try to put a stop to him through their accusations. In verses 31-32 his family is the one attempting to rein Jesus in.

What we see, then, in Jesus’ calling of the disciples and the parable of the binding of the strong man is that true disciples are those who are called by Jesus. They are the ones of whom it is said Jesus sets their agenda. This is not the case with the crowds or even his family at this point. They are attempting to set Jesus’ agenda. True discipleship works the other way around.

Mistaken disciples try to bind Jesus. But Jesus will not be bound—He is the One binding the strong man and plundering his house. Or in other words Jesus is destroying the works of the devil according to His plan. He hasn’t come to be the errand boy of hurting people. Jesus has come to put an end to the demonic stranglehold on humanity.

As I studied the fence (3:22-30) I realized it was there for a reason. It was holding up the whole thing. Yes, blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is a hot button issue. There are folks in every congregation who will have questions about this text. But if I want to truly follow the story Mark is telling I cannot just pick up this fence post and move it around. I need to preach the whole section and then maybe later I can focus on one of those pieces—like what is meant by blasphemy of the Spirit.

So, preacher if you are going to move fences by preaching a passage out of order, be sure you first understand why it is in the order it is in. It may not simply be a chronological issue. It might be central to the original author’s story. Move the post and you’ll end up replacing the major point with a minor point. Which is acceptable—but only if you realize you are doing it.